Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

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Trading in her blue body paint for a bow & arrow Jennifer Lawrence is back for her second blockbuster of the year. Returning to big screen as Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence and company reignite the phenomenon that is the Hunger Games for the final (sort of) chapter of this franchise.

Mockingjay Part 1 picks up a week or two after the dramatic conclusion in Catching Fire. After been rescued from the Games she so publicly ended, Katniss has been recovering in the underground stronghold of the thought gone District 13. Still mentally coping with the toll the Games took on her, Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the President of District 13 Alma Coin (played by Julianne Moore) attempt to jolt Katniss out of her traumatized state to become their symbol for their rebellion; their Mockingjay. When Katniss sees the aftermath of what President Snow and the Capital have done to the many districts, in a response of her destroying the Games, Katniss doesn't need any more convincing to join the cause.

Despite the star rating at the top of this review I did really like this film. There's a ton of really great stuff in it. It deals with some interesting and intense subject matter when it comes to the rebellion and the genocide of entire districts. Stuff only really touched on it the first two films. And Jennifer Lawrence really steps up her game (no pun intended) in her performance here. However ultimately the film feels incomplete and leaves audience members feeling slightly cheated. I'll explain.

If you didn't already know or couldn't tell from the 'Part 1' in the title, this Mockingjay film is only the first half of the adaption for the final book in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy. A growing trend in these modern book series to film adaptions; ex. Harry Potter, Twilight, and eventually Divergent to name a few. I only bring this up because in certain situations, like Mockingjay here, the splitting of the book can affect the storytelling. I'll admit I'm the opposite of most fans of the series, in that I like to wait to watch the films first and then read the books afterwards so enjoy the reveal in the theatre rather than in the pages. Backwards I know. So I can only speculate about the eventual outcome of the series, but after seeing Part 1 there didn't appear to be enough story to warrant these 2 films. I know the reason for it, just like the other series I mentioned; it's a finical decision to spilt the final book in the series, not an artistic or story decision. And that's whole other discussion in itself that I won't even bother touching here. All I'll say is whether you've read the books or not, Part 1 will come across as an extended teaser trailer for the finale rather than a complete film with three act structure. For some that might not be a bad thing.

Other than Mockingjay being a two-parter it has a dramatically different feel to it compared to the previous two films. The first two movies where centred around the Hunger Games competitions that provided a glamour and sceptical to the danger these characters were in. In this post-Game setting the danger is still very much there, arguably more so, but the tone and style is muted by the despair that now comes with this fully revealed dystopian future. There's no parties, no ceremonies, no zany TV segments with the always amazing spray-tanned Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman to lighten the mood of a scene. Part 1 isn't the adventure film the first two movies were, it's a film about survival and the costs that come with staying alive. Those earlier films maybe presented as kids films but Mockingjay is definitely for a more mature age demographic this time around.

Jennifer Lawrence... is well Jennifer Lawrence level good of course. Lawrence had some pretty incredible moments in the earlier films to flex her acting chops but where she takes Katniss' character this time around is quite remarkable. Right of the bat you see Katniss experiencing all the symptoms of PTSD a soldier removed from combat would experience. She's not the traditional stoic figure that always keeps it together. Lawrence makes Katniss appear a believable person by reacting to situations and experiences like any normal person would, giving the character a level of humanity you rarely get see for a lead in an action film. Not to brand this solely as an action film, because it's not, it's more than that. My only gripe about Lawrence's Katniss here would be she does too much of the heavy lifting when it comes to the story.

Again, I don't know how the whole story unfolds because I'm still holding off on reading the last book, but despite the great cast and characters Part 1 has it seemed so much of the story relied on Katniss to carry it forward. Maybe its because the first two films both had the Hunger Games as a story component it made it feel more like an ensemble with all the characters in and around the games. In Mockingjay many of the "co-stars" have their characters limited to cameo sized roles, regardless of the fact they have top billing behind Lawrence. But just because they don't get much screen time or enough to do, doesn't mean there weren't great additions to the franchise.

Julianne Moore's character, President Coin, joins the world of the Hunger Games in this film as the best new addition. With coloured contact lens and grey hair she might not look the part of rebellion leader but she certainly does act it in her own unique way. Moore's brings a firm no nonsense style of leadership to her character without the typical banging of the chest mentality those characters are normally portrayed as. Then there's District 13's head of security Boggs played by House of Cards famed actor Mahershala Ali. Ali is in Part 1 a bunch but sadly never gets a shred of character development past being a military man. The last great new addition isn't quite new, but has to be mentioned, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch. Hoffman's character gets to take on a whole new light being on the other side of the wall this time around. Him and Moore look to have great fun playing off of each other, but knowing that Hoffman had passed away before they were finished filming his many of his scenes for Part 2 kind of took me out of any scene whenever they allude the story ending. That's not a complaint, just the film fan in me over thinking things.

Anytime another film is added to a franchise comparisons to the previous films are always made. In this comparison sadly Mockingjay Part 1 is the weakest of the three Hunger Games films so far. I'm not knocking it or calling it a poor film, because its not in any way. Just with previous films delivering a certain level of entertainment throughout, and Part 1 probably having to hold back those big story elements for Part 2, it doesn't raise the stakes or carry on the energy like most sequels are expected to do. Instead of comparing Mockingjay Part 1 to Hunger Games or Catching Fire I think the best parallel most audiences would agree with is the second last Harry Potter film; The Deadly Hallows Part 1. Much like Mockingjay's Part 1, Hallows Part 1 starts off strong with some early action sequences and then spends most of the remaining time of the film setting up the events for the finale. Might be a slower pace than most movie-goers are expecting but again that's the trade off when splitting the book. Mockingjay Part 1 might be 90% setup to the eventual payoff of Part 2 a year from now but fans of the series will still enjoy this lead up regardless of the slow pace.

Katniss will be back in Mockingjay Part 2 November 20, 2015

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Tags: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Mahershala Ali, Francis Lawrence

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Andrew Burns loves film and comics, and can be found writing about when those worlds converge. You can follow him on Twitter at @myAndrewBurns.

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